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Redressing History: First Nation Leaders' Hopes for the U.N. Forum

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When the World Council of Churches (WCC) formally renounced the Doctrine of Discovery in February, it was welcome news for Native peoples. Promulgated by Pope Nicholas V in the 1450s, the doctrine effectively called for non-Christians to be subjugated, their land seized. Some deem it a veritable open invitation to commit aboriginal genocide.

The WCC’s about-face could augur well for broader awareness, indigenous leaders hope, especially those in Canada. This month’s 11th Session of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which runs from May 7–18, could offer opportunities to address that, First Nations leaders told Indian Country Today Media Network ahead of the forum.

At the heart of the ongoing conflict is that well-known, colossal misunderstanding that Canada’s aboriginals are still trying to rectify. Everyone knows that the Doctrine of Discovery held that the lands of the so-called New World—as “discovered” by Columbus and his contemporaries—were not Christian and were therefore considered empty, their inhabitants barely human.

But the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples brought “strong international consensus of our rightful place in the world,” Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo said in a conference call with reporters in March. “We know that this doctrine has been completely debunked.”

First Nations hope to continue building on this at the forum session. They note that at least some companies and industries are reaching out to First Nations. When Atleo speaks of “resetting the relationship” between Canada and the First Nations, as he often does, he is not talking about turning back the clock to precontact times. Rather, he is focusing on the present, with equality and partnership as the jumping-off points for “designing a new way forward.”

That is why, First Nations leaders emphasize, such statutes as the Indian Act serve only to infantilize the indigenous, sending a message that they are incapable of caring for and governing themselves. Indeed, they say, it is their people and not the Canadian government who should be generating solutions to the myriad ills afflicting them in health, housing and everything in between.

“I want them to recognize us as the people for who we are,” Grand Chief Denise Stonefish of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians (AIAI) told ­ICTMN in a phone interview. “Because according to the United Nations, we do have the components to be acknowledged as a nation.”

Stonefish noted that to be recognized as a nation, an entity must have a language, culture and a sustainable population base.

“Those are some of the components that are recognized globally,” she said. “So why can’t the state of Canada and the provinces recognize that and deal with in that fashion? We’re not children any more—we never were children. The Doctrine of Discovery just doesn’t recognize that there are different ways to be a nation and [that] their way isn’t the only way.”

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Unfortunately, Atleo points out, the doctrine planted poisonous seeds that germinated centuries later in the Indian Act and other misguided policies. So nothing short of scrapping those policies will offer adequate chances of redress: “[The treaties] are as valid today as the days that they were entered into,” he said.

What’s more, said Grand Chief Stan Beardy of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, those treaties as understood by First Nations were different from what aboriginal peoples understood them to be.

“To our [way of thinking] those treaties were relationships,” he said. “And the treaties that they brought to us were in a foreign language and were already written. “We agreed to peaceful coexistence, we agreed to have a relationship with the sovereign nation, because in our minds we were sovereign as well. What we are advocating for is a fair law and policies away from the theme of domination.”

The reality, of course, was quite different, and leaders are hoping the U.N. forum can help get the word out.

“I personally believe that my job is to educate the Canadian public and to let them know that things aren’t the way they think they are out there, or not the way the Canadian government tells them it is,” Stonefish said. “We’re not standing there with our hands out taking from their taxpaying dollars. And if Canada would really sit down and be the treaty partners that they should be, we could see a bigger light at the end of the tunnel for First Nation peoples. And we could actually be the equal partners that we’re supposed to be.”

For his part, Beardy would like a U.N. panel of experts to take a closer look at the issues at hand.

“We’re hoping that with more work, more study by the U.N., we’ll be able to address, redress, the question of what happened to us,” he said. He would also like to see the WCC, even the Vatican, take a harsher stand against the doctrine.

“The churches right now need to go beyond a statement and say that what happened to us is that they colonized and took over our lands without [our] being conquered,” Beardy said. “They need to go beyond a statement today.”

For example, he said, the WCC should state flat out that it is “not supporting extraction companies to continue to exploit our homelands.”

Extraction is in fact a good case in point. These days, Beardy said, mining companies are doing a better job than Ottawa of dealing respectfully with First Nations. “We expect people to do business with us, come and talk to us,” he said. [Mining companies] make an attempt to talk to us, accommodate us. But … the government [seems] to be quite far behind.”